I never know what I want for Christmas. As my wife, my family members, and my friends can testify, I am terrible at expressing my desires when it comes to birthdays and holidays. But recently I came to a very clarifying and profoundly depressing realization: What I really want, more than anything, is to have access to some of the retail experiences of my youth.
When Tower was folding, it seemed like the very idea of a record store was becoming an endangered species, though the rise of vinyl has saved local shops that picked up the slack for the corporate monoliths that were wiped off the map. But even though I know the idea of smaller, niche music emporiums is superior to soul-sucking mall chains like Strawberries and Coconuts, I still miss the experience of grazing in Virgin Megastores. The breadth of the selection was always intoxicating for an open-minded hound like myself, and I would get a buzz off of the idea of searching for something and stumbling on something else, or taking a flyer on a deeply discounted buzzworthy new release, or tracking down whatever was playing in the store at the time. I loved the sensation of connecting the dots amongst the racks, allowing the momentum of curiosity and discovery to fling me in a million different directions.
I gained a part of that sensation back when I moved to Los Angeles, as having access to Amoeba Music is about the closest I've ever come to re-submerging myself back into the early adventures at the Tower in Boston or the Virgin in Union Square. That experience is lacking something, though, and it's the larger taint of the way the music world operates now. When I was first losing myself among the CD cases, digital music was a very nascent thing, and there was no iTunes, Napster, Spotify, Shazam, or any of the other ethereal products that have devalued recorded music over the past two decades. For 15-year-olds invested in music now, I cannot imagine any of them have ever purchased a physical piece of music that they didn't already know they liked. Back in '98, you had access to the single on the radio, the select albums deemed worthy of the listening stations, and the benevolence of the clerks behind the counter who had control of the CD changer. The record store was the final gateway between you and the full scope of an artist's work, and as such the stakes were always slightly inflated because there was always the possibility that the single was great and the rest of the album was a dud. The perennial possibility of being let down was part of the thrill, and for kids like me who could only buy an album or two at a time, copping a disc you ended up hating would change the complexion of your day-to-day dealings. Having two new albums you love at your fingertips was an incredible luxury, and that's why I still tend to buy music two-at-a-time.
At least record stores still have a footprint. While digital music remains the primary means of delivery for kids with iPhones, the fetishization of vinyl (and to a lesser extent cassettes) has created a market for physical media that allows for shops to keep peddling. The same cannot be said for the lowly video store, which has been rendered extinct both by the rise of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu but also by the fact that television has supplanted film as the method of entertainment people indulge in when they want some time on the couch. There's a smaller subset of people who still value physical video media—there's a healthy secondary market for VHS tapes, and distributors like Criterion and Shout Factory continue to produce top-notch niche fare—but the legacy of the video rental establishment will die with the last of us who remember walking up and down the aisles searching for a tape. That is an experience genuinely lost to history, and the idea that such a big part of my development as a media-consuming human being is as dead as Dillinger fills me with unmistakeable melancholy.
This series will be twofold: It will celebrate the classic VHS art of my youth, and it will be a conduit for stories related to those movies. Most of my personal narrative is tied up in media, so if I'm going to organize my life in any way, it's going to be by genre and alphabetically in the end.
We begin with Evil Dead 2. Though I'm a huge fan of horror movies today, as a kid I did not tolerate them because I was a complete wuss. That scaredy-cattitude extended to VHS box art, which I could not tolerate. One of the local video rental houses in the town where I grew up was called Video Galaxy, a spot where I mostly rented WWF pay-per-view videos and Thundercats compilation tapes. But the wall between the kids' stuff was on the opposite end of the store as the new releases, where my parents would typically be grazing. The most direct way from one side of the store to the other was through the horror aisle, which to my young eyes was a cavalcade of nightmares waiting to be unleashed on my poor pitiful brain. I used to have to close my eyes and break into a full sprint to get from one end of that aisle to the other in order to show my folks what I wanted to rent. I got so good at this run that I was able to time it out correctly so as not to bang my head against the racks on the opposite side nor collide with other customers who did not want a spooked six-year-old taking out their knees.
Sometimes there was just no avoiding horror, however. The 7-11 down the street from my house rented a middling selection of videos, and the way it advertised that service was with a giant poster for Evil Dead 2. When confronted with horror imagery, I would construct a narrative in my head that helped justify the existence of the creepiness, and often these made-up movies completely centered around the image on the box (which meant that I was pretty certain that the entirety of Bloody Birthday was the making and consuming of a cake with human fingers in it). Of course, a lot of those movies rarely included the imagery on the box—most famously, Ghoulies did not, in fact, spend their entire movie biting people's asses.
But I could not make heads or tails of Evil Dead 2. There was something deeply disturbing about the way the eyes stared directly at me while I chose between Hostess Cupcakes or a Whatchamacallit. I'm pretty sure that Child Kyle assumed that if you popped Evil Dead 2 into the VCR, you'd just get 90 minutes of that skull staring at you, like an entry in Faces of Death directed by Bela Tarr.
It was years before I finally watched Evil Dead 2—I think I was in college by the time I got around to it, though I had seen Army of Darkness by then. And even though I'm a full convert to the Raimi/Campbell brand of high-energy splatstick, I still get mildly unnerved whenever I'm confronted with the above image advertising Evil Dead 2. Sometimes childhood nightmares are just too hard to kick.